Saulnierville St mary's Bay. Mik'maw fishers prepare their bots for their self-declared lobster fishery during the summer season declared closed by the federal fisheries department for conservation reasons (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Indigenous rights: A new current in the Nova Scotia lobster dispute

Local First Nation says Sipekne’katik did not consult them before launching disputed fishery

The ongoing dispute over Indigenous fishing rights in Nova Scotia has seen a new player emerge to add to the troubled waters.

This time however, it might be seen as veiled criticism by one band of the actions of the other.


At the heart of the dispute is a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1999 that said First Nations have an inherent right to fish (or hunt) for ceremonial, cultural and basic needs, but also to earn a “moderate livelihood”.   This latter concept is not defined leading to conflict.

An additional,  SCC ruling said those rights could however be subject to federal or provincial rules for purposes of conservation or other reasons, if justifiable.

The dispute boiled over in the lucrative St Mary’s Bay when the Sipekne’katik Mi’kmaw band launched their own lobster fishery with five, now 10 boats, outside the federally regulated fishing season whichis currently closed for annual conservation reasons as lobster are mating and renewing their shells (molting).

The commercial fishers say fishing lobster during this period will harm the overall stock.

Local Mi’kmaw want in on talks

The new player in the dispute is the local Bear River Mi’kmaw band who are actually the band closest to St Mary’s Bay in southwestern Nova Scotia. On the other hand, the Sipekne’katik who are at the heart of the dispute, are based over 250 km away in the central part of the province.

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The Bear River band says the dispute between Sipekne’katik and local commercial fishers has pushed them out of the bay where they have always fished.  Bear River Chief Carol Dee Potter has written a letter (full letter here) to the federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan and Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack and other leading chiefs in the province.

In it Chief Potter, says the dispute between the Sipekne’katik and the local commercial fishers has harmed years of efforts by her band to build bridges with the local non-native communities. Without actually criticising any particular group, the letter expresses dismay at the situation which has caused harm to her band and division in local communities.

The letter also expresses dismay that neither the federal minister, nor fisheries officials nor the Sipekne’katik band had reached out to the local Bear River community to discuss the situation that has a direct effect on them and their relationships with non-native communities.

She noted her community was involved in the original dispute and 1999 SCC rulings and since then; “Our communities worked tirelessly to build bridges and repair relationships with non-Mi’kmaq fishers and communities. Our children go to school with one another, we share communities with one another and often our families are connected to one another”.

Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack addresses Mi’kmaw fishermen and their supporters in September in St Mary’s Bay during the launch of an Indigenous lobster fishery that local commercial fishermen say is illegal and which led to a violent escalation in a simmering dispute over fishing rights (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Again referencing the dispute involving the central Nova Scotia Sipekne’katic and local commercial fishers in St Mary’s Bay, she notes that it is her local band which resides in the are that has been ignored, “We are very concerned that we are not part of any discussions that involve the health and sustainability of resources in our own backyard,” and adding that they are the people who have to deal with the fallout from the dispute, saying, “All that work over the past decades is quickly being eroded by others who will soon leave this area, leaving us to pick up the pieces”.

Since the dispute erupted in September one lobster holding facility used by the Sipekne’katik has been damaged by vandals, another was burned to the ground. They have since obtained a court order against anyone threatening them, their fishery activity, or anyone doing business with them.

A suspicious fire destroyed a lobster pound where Mi’kmaw fishers had stored their catch. (twitter via CBC)

After the 1999 SCC ruling, and some tensions at the time, the Bear River community is among the several First Nations groups who arranged deals with the federal Conservative government for a food, social and ceremonial fishery, along with a small communal fishery. The federal government had also spent some $270 million dollars helping a few other First Nations in Quebec and the maritimes with boats, equipment, training, and licences for commercial fishing operations.

While talks continue between Sipekne’katik Chief Michael Sack, and the federal government about that band’s self regulated fishery, Chief Potter stated that the Bear River band is now working on developing its own self regulated commercial fishery in collaboration with two other Mi’kmaw communities in the St Mary’s Bay area, Acadia, and Annapolis Valley

In the letter Potter says, “As such, Bear River First Nation expects respectful dialogue with the Crown, our fellow Mi’kmaq communities and the non-Mi’kmaq fishery pertaining to the lobster fishery in St. Mary’s Bay. To date, this has not taken place.”

Cory Francis, a member of one of nearby Acadia First Nation also expressed concern about the talks involving the Sipekne’katik and federal government. He told CBC news “I believe that the process that is being pursued to implement a moderate livelihood fishery now … is more political than law abiding and respecting the parameters of Marshall, (1999 SCC decision)”

He also said he feels it will result in more commercial licences but they won’t be distributed fairly and that band members ‘who aren’t so well-connected’ will be left out.

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